OxyContin is a prescription painkiller and the brand name for the opioid oxycodone that’s used to treat more severe symptoms of pain. In the past 20 years, OxyContin has gained significant notoriety as being one of the prescription opioids at the heart of what would eventually develop into the current opioid epidemic.
Despite all of the widely known dangers associated with OxyContin abuse, many people still find themselves slipping into substance abuse behaviors, often without even realizing it. Although its use is much more heavily restricted today, OxyContin is still prescribed, and it is a dangerous gateway drug.
In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), almost 80 percent of heroin users in the U.S. reported as misusing prescription opioids like OxyContin before using heroin.
The last decade has been filled with heartache as a result of the opioid crisis. Since the release of OxyContin, the United States has been grappling with opioid overdose deaths at unfathomable levels.
To put into perspective, from 1999 to 2017, we have witnessed more than 700,000 people die from drug overdoses, and in 2017, 68% percent of more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths involved opioids. After all these years and waves we have dealt with, you would expect these numbers to start declining at some point. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made with prescription opiates, the crisis continues to worsen.
Nearly 130 people die each day as a result of opioid overdose, but this is a process that has evolved over time in waves. The first wave started in the 1990s when pharmaceutical representatives marketed their product to physicians as a non-addictive means of treating mild to severe pain. Once the floodgates opened, counties, cities, and states were decimated by prescription drug usage.
Once officials realized the devastating destruction prescriptions were causing, they began to implement stricter guidelines for who needed opioid pain pills. Unfortunately, many were already hooked, and it pushed them into using heroin. By 2010, heroin overdose deaths occurred rapidly, which contributed to the second wave.
The third and final wave we are currently stuck in has seen a rise in the illicit opioid fentanyl. The drug was marketed on the streets as a cheaper and more potent alternative to heroin. In some cases, though, user’s will purchase what they believe is OxyContin, only for it to be fentanyl that can instantly kill them. The crisis put great stress on the government to react, but at its root, OxyContin has been at the forefront of this crisis.
OxyContin works in basically the same way as all opioids, slowing down activity in the central nervous system to block nerve impulses carrying pain signals from being able to reach the brain. It also creates an excess of a brain chemical known as dopamine to create intense feelings of euphoria and intoxication.
The body already creates its opioids naturally to help regulate and manage pain, and so OxyContin mimics these opioids to enter the brain and bind with what’s known as opioid receptors.
Once bound, OxyContin activates these receptors, again and again, stimulating them to produce opioids until the brain and nervous system are flooded with them, creating potent feelings of sedation and pain relief.
While it may seem like the signs of OxyContin abuse and addiction should be fairly easy to spot, if someone has had a prescription for OxyContin and has been previously using it for its intended purpose, the transition from misuse to abuse can be much more difficult to recognize than someone might think.
Even the point at which abuse becomes addiction can pass unnoticed until the situation has escalated to the point that the signs of addictive behavior and their negative impacts have become too obvious to miss.
Being able to identify a growing OxyContin abuse problem before it can fully develop into addiction can help someone get treatment before they become severely addicted or experience an overdose. Common side effects to watch out for that are associated with regular OxyContin abuse include:
The transition from OxyContin abuse to addiction is based on a loss of control over-usage. Someone who is abusing or even dependent on OxyContin will still have some degree of control over how much and often they use, but when someone has become addicted, they will slip into compulsive and obsessive using.
At this point, obtaining and using OxyContin essentially becomes the most important thing in someone’s life and the end goal of nearly all their actions and decision-making, which will lead to behaviors consistent with a substance use disorder, including:
If you have observed the signs of OxyContin addiction in a family member or friend or recognized these symptoms in your own behavior, the next step is to get help from a professional addiction treatment center as soon as possible.
As with any opioid use disorder, as well as substance use disorders, in general, OxyContin addiction treatment should start with medical detoxification under the close monitoring of a medical detox center. Detox is a process wherein any drugs, alcohol, and any potential accompanying toxins are removed from someone’s system to get them sober and stabilized. Detox also aims to stop any damage that substances might be remaining in the person’s body.
OxyContin detox and the withdrawal symptoms associated with it can be uncomfortable and difficult to deal with but are rarely ever life-threatening and comparatively mild in contrast to the symptoms common to benzodiazepine detox.
OxyContin withdrawal still comes with an extremely high risk of relapse, and so should never be attempted alone or without at least some level of medical intervention. An experienced medical detox team can utilize medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help manage withdrawal symptoms as well as in the form of medical maintenance therapy to slowly and safely taper down OxyContin usage through the substitution of weaker, less dangerous opioids with low abuse potential such as methadone or buprenorphine, eventually tapering those down as well.
Once finished with detox, it is strongly encouraged that someone continues their OxyContin addiction treatment in an addiction recovery treatment program. Detox on its own is not enough to quit OxyContin with any kind of lasting success.
Ongoing care in either inpatient or outpatient recovery treatment gives people the tools and skills needed so that they have the best chance possible of avoiding relapse and maintaining long-term sobriety. The major differentiation between inpatient and outpatient care is that the former involves living on the treatment center premises while the latter has the individual in treatment commuting to the facility for their treatment sessions. Whichever will be most useful will vary from person to person based on their specific needs and situation.
No matter what program option someone chooses, during addiction treatment, they will usually work with their therapist or clinician to come up with a customized treatment plan that will be most effective for their recovery. Common possible treatment plan elements include:
Whether an opioid is prescription or illicit, the opioid crisis has clearly shown that these drugs are extremely dangerous, and OxyContin is certainly no exception to this. OxyContin is easily strong enough on its own to cause a fatal overdose. It becomes even more of a risk when mixed with other depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines to strengthen its sedative effects.
If someone is experiencing an OxyContin overdose, it is vital that they receive medical attention as soon as possible to avoid death as well as possible permanent brain and organ damage. As with other opioids, OxyContin overdoses are usually treated by administering the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone, also known as Narcan.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, August 01). Prescription Opioid Overdose Data. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, August). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018, September). 2017 NSDUH Annual National Report. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
(n.d.). Understanding the Epidemic | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html